Winter brings the holidays, visions of sugar plums dancing in our heads, and awkward time with family members that we spend the rest of the year trying to avoid.
But it also brings an entirely new set of challenges that can turn an otherwise basic survival situation into a potentially deadly event. Winter survival is no joke; things you can get away with in other seasons can get you killed in the winter.
All it takes is one wrong move, failing to bring the right gear, or dressing improperly to turn a beautiful, snowy day into a nightmare. To help you stay safe and survive the unique challenges of winter, I’ve put together a list of winter survival tips:
- Dress in layers of appropriate materials. A common winter mistake is to bundle up like the kid from A Christmas Story. You’ll start off warm and cozy but as you become more active you’ll quickly begin to sweat, which will suck away precious body heat. An athletic wicking material, like Under Armor® makes the perfect base layer, while wool or polypropylene are excellent for insulating layers, and your outer-layer should be a breathable, weather-resistant material like GORE-TEX®. As your body temperature increases, you can remove insulating layers, or add them as you cool.
- Remember that it gets dark earlier in the winter, so plan accordingly.
- Carry wide-mouth water bottles so that if the top freezes, you can remove the cap and break up the ice; this is almost impossible with canteens or bottles with a narrow neck. I usually recommend Nalgene bottles because they are durable and inexpensive, but metal bottles are another great option. While a bit more expensive, they are even more sturdy and you can directly heat or boil the liquids contained inside—just be sure to remove the cap so the pressure doesn’t build up and cause the bottle to burst.
- Do not eat snow to hydrate. It will cool your body and force you to burn more calories to maintain your temperature. Melt it by boiling it first—this also ensures that it’s purified.
- Avoid walking on ice. Ice over solid ground is bad enough, but ice over water adds the risk of breaking through to the water below; cold and wet are shitty things to be and hypothermia takes you downhill fast.
- You’ll need to consume more calories and water than usual in cold weather. Your body will burn more calories trying to stay warm, and you’ll need more water to process that additional food. Foods with higher fat content are a simple way to pack in the calories you need. (Protein and carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram while fats have 9 calories per gram.)
- Know how to identify and treat hypothermia.
- Bring extra gloves. While traveling on skis and carrying a pack that weighed well over 100 pounds in Norway, I fell over and ended up with wet gloves quite often. When it’s cold enough to need gloves, you don’t have the time to wait for them to dry. An extra pair (or two, or even three) means you can just swap them out, staving off frostbite and ensuring your fingers continue to work properly.
- Never rely on following your own tracks in the snow to find your way back home. A light snowfall or strong wind can destroy them and any hope of making it back safely. The same applies to trail markers and most landmarks.
- Have several ways to start a fire; even in warm weather, I pack at least three ways to do so. A lighter or matches in a waterproof container is an obvious choice—I suggest both because even if your lighter gets wet, it will work fine once it dries out. Another great option, perhaps one of the best, is a strike fire starter because it lasts nearly forever, is almost impossible to break, and works even when wet. Primitive fire starting techniques like building and using a bow drill are a valuable skill, but remember, knowledge isn’t power—applied knowledge is. You need to practice building a fire under adverse conditions. Oh, and don’t forget the tinder.
- Be proficient in the use of snowshoes and skis. If you’ve ever trudged through knee-deep snow, you understand exactly why you never want to be without one or the other. One word—postholing. It will wear you out and throw off your balance. Ideally, you should know how improvise both shoes and skis.
- Pack your own shelter. Sure, you can build a lean-to or snow cave in the field, but that takes valuable time and energy you may not have. Depending on the temperature you may want a tent, but even in Arctic environments, I’ve found myself quite comfy with little more than a Mylar blanket.
- Wear sunglasses to prevent snow blindness, which is basically a sunburn of the cornea. In a snowy environment your eyes are subjected to the sun’s damaging UV rays from above as well as those reflected off the snow.
- Carefully choose when to travel. The winter can be a deadly time of the year, but trying to move in the dark or during a blizzard can make it even more so. If possible, stay in place (with a shelter and fire, of course) during the night and bad weather and travel in the daytime during clear weather.